S'pore's only human milk bank sees boost in breast milk donation during pandemic

Ms Junette De Jesus, with her one-year-old son Liam De Jesus, and Ms Vivienne Low, at KK Women's and Children's Hospital. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

SINGAPORE - For 15 days from when Vianna was born on March 17, her mother, Ms Vivienne Low, 35, could only touch the infant's tiny hands and watch her fight for her life through the clear glass panes of the incubator in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at KK Women's and Children's Hospital (KKH).

Born 10 weeks early and a fourth of the weight of a regular baby - at just 758g - she pulled through, thanks in part to a rich supply of breast milk from her mother.

Between 8 per cent and 9 per cent of babies here are premature, a figure that has held steady between 2014 and last year, the Ministry of Health said.

These premature babies (preemies) need nutritious breast milk to give them a fighting chance, as their immature digestive systems are not tolerant of formula milk.

Formula milk is also associated with a three to 10 times increased risk of premature babies developing necrotising enterocolitis (NEC), a serious intestinal illness. Babies who develop NEC may be required to stay in hospital for an additional three weeks and in more severe cases, may need surgery.

But many mothers of premature babies may experience difficulties in providing enough breast milk for their own babies, especially in the first few days, said Dr Chua Mei Chien, the head and senior consultant at the department of neonatology in KKH, who is also the director of the KK Human Milk Bank.

Singapore's only milk bank at KKH does not just help premature infants, but also has sufficient reserves to help infants 12 months and younger with medical problems such as malabsorption and congenital complex heart disease.

More than 8,600 litres of human milk have been donated since the bank was set up in August 2017, helping more than 1,963 babies in Singapore. More than 735 mothers have donated their milk.

Ms Low, a public servant, is the KK Human Milk Bank champion donor, donating a total of 214 litres of breast milk as at Nov 30.

She contributed 139 litres during the circuit breaker. Another mother who donated generously was 39-year-old Junette De Jesus, an IT business analyst, who donated 175 litres in the first nine months of this year.

Healthy women of any nationality can donate to the bank.

Ms Low said: "I had to start pumping immediately after Vianna was born to establish a good supply of milk. Thankfully, supply came quickly but Vianna drank very little, consuming just 50ml per day when she was just born, and I was pumping some 1.5 litres a day."

Vianna is Ms Low's second child, but this is the first time she has donated milk to the bank.

"These premature babies, they come to the NICU and start fighting for their lives... If what I can do can give them a better fighting chance, then why not?" Ms Low added.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the milk bank also successfully maintained a healthy two months reserve of pasteurised donor human milk at all times, even as milk banks in other countries experienced a sharp decline in donations, largely due to mothers' fears of contracting the virus when outdoors or in hospitals, Dr Chua said.

A slew of measures here, including a courier service to facilitate the collection of breast milk from donors not able to visit the milk bank as well as the delivery of donor milk to recipients in the community, helped to reassure mothers and facilitate donation.

The circuit breaker - which resulted in many working from home - also gave mothers more time and convenience to pump milk. This resulted in a 60 per cent increase in milk donated per donor from April to July compared with the same period last year, said Dr Chua.

Since the bank's launch, exclusive human milk feeding - feeding with the mother's own milk as well as pasteurised donor human milk - in KKH's NICU has increased from 20 per cent to 97 per cent.

Meanwhile, the number of infants who developed NEC dropped from 5.8 per cent in August 2017 to 2 per cent in July this year.

In October, the team behind the bank was awarded the National Clinical Excellence Team Award.

The bank, which is funded by philanthropic organisation Temasek Foundation, also received additional funding from Temasek Foundation to expand the programme from hospitals into the community from July last year to benefit more infants.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.